Colorado’s Thriving Travel-Tech Industry — How Tech and Travel Giants Are Driving Startup Success

Not long ago, travel planning involved paper guidebooks, phone calls and often an assist from a real live travel agent. That’s changed markedly, as the travel industry has embraced technology in a big way in recent decades. 

Colorado is firmly entrenched in both areas. With several travel heavyweights based in the state and an ever-growing tech sector, the overlap is catalyzing startups and snaring satellite offices of established players. 

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“Colorado in general attracts people who have an affinity for experiences,” says Brian Becker, chief growth officer for Denver-based company Evolve. “That affinity for experiences also creates this passion where they bring that to their day-to-day professions and want to really home in on, ‘How do we help others have those experiences?’” 

There’s a virtuous cycle at play, with big companies incubating the next batch of travel-tech entrepreneurs, he adds, with startups from ex-employees of “Vrbo, Vail Resorts, Sage Hospitality, Alterra — the list goes on and on with the businesses that have been built here.” 

Evolve’s story is an archetype for the phenomenon: Becker was one of the company’s first hires after Brian Egan and Adam Sherry founded the company in 2011; all three were veterans of Denver-based Exclusive Resorts, a luxury vacation club that now has more than 300 employees. 

Exclusive Resorts “spawned careers for a lot of us and got us excited about the space and interested in trying to work on other angles and opportunities in the tourism sector,” Becker says. “I was keeping tabs on what they were up to here at Evolve and got really excited about the opportunity to work on a bigger problem in a bigger market.” 

A decade later, the company has 1,100-plus employees, about 800 of whom are based in Colorado. The company recently surpassed 30,000 properties under management in the U.S. “from Alaska to the Florida Keys and Maine to Hawaii,” Becker says. “We’ll have well over a billion dollars in net booking value at those properties over the course of this year.”  

Growth spiked with the arrival of COVID-19, as travelers viewed vacation rentals as a safer lodging option. “For context, we’ve gone from 300-ish to 1,100 people in the last three years,” Becker says. “We think that mainstreaming accelerated by a good five years due to the impacts of the pandemic.” 

The pandemic was also a catalyst for the migration of travel-tech talent to Colorado. Brian Nolan, co-founder and CEO of BookOutdoors, moved from Los Angeles to Parker in late 2020 after the tech workforce largely went remote. He’d sold his previous company to GoDaddy and was looking for a new opportunity when his co-founders approached him to run BookOutdoors in 2021. 

“We looked at Denver, Austin, Seattle, Nashville, and we had a checklist of things that were important to us,” Nolan says. Denver’s weather? Check. Sunshine? Check. Lifestyle and cost of living? Check and check. 

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For BookOutdoors, a reservations platform for campgrounds and other outdoor-oriented accommodations, Nolan says the move has proven serendipitous from a talent standpoint. “Honestly, I didn’t even know there was such a big travel-tech industry here when I moved here,” he says. “It’s been a pleasant surprise that there is so much experience and so many people here that have worked at different travel-tech companies.” 

The Front Range headquarters of both the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds and the American Glamping Association has been another plus, Nolan adds, as has the concentration of campgrounds. 

Joost Schreve, founder and CEO of kimkim, tells a similar story. Schreve founded the company in Palo Alto, California, in 2016 to help people cut down on the amount of time spent online planning a trip with specialists; the team now helps vacationers in 90 countries. 

“Travel in a way has become so much more complex to book, because there’s so much information out there,” he says. “We tried to simplify that.” 

Schreve relocated his family and kimkim’s headquarters to Boulder just after the onset of the pandemic in 2020. The trip-planning company has boomed since, with revenue cresting over the $10 million mark in 2022 and about 30 employees roughly evenly split among offices in Colorado, California and Netherlands. 

Beyond Schreve’s personal, lifestyle-guided reasons for the move, Boulder’s talent and startup infrastructure makes for “the perfect combination” for kimkim as well. “The talent that’s here is actually quite different from the Bay Area,” Schreve notes. “The Bay Area is very heavy on engineers and product managers. It’s actually very hard to even find people there who have a good background in business development or customer support, and if they are there, the cost of living is often very prohibitive.” 

Remote work has alleviated the latter issue to a degree. It’s also a perfect fit for travel tech. 

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Take Redeam, for example. Founded in 2015, the company shut down a Boulder office during the pandemic and is now virtual with more than 40 employees, six of whom are based in Colorado. The company develops digital reservations and ticketing systems for the experiences industry. 

With 25 years in travel with Orbitz and other companies, Erie-based CEO Melanie Meador joined Redeam after it raised a Series A round of funding in 2018. Whereas flights and hotels can be booked on a smartphone, the “things to do” industry has lagged, Meador says. “We’re essentially going through that same transition right now of taking the ‘things to do,’ or experiences, market and transitioning it from offline and manual to online and digitized.” 

With 250 integrations with companies like Disney and Ticketmaster, Redeam is “well on our way at this point,” Meador says. “I just closed a sizable fundraising round, and now we are growing exponentially and bringing on the resources we need to meet the demand we have in play.” 

Whether workers are remote or not, Meador says Colorado has a bright future as a hub for travel tech. The presence of Denver International Airport doesn’t hurt, but Silicon Valley has also lost its luster for many entrepreneurs.  

“I think that speaks well to Colorado for future tech growth,” she says. “California is very costly as far as cost of living, its political standpoint is a bit messy, and now in a post-COVID world where so much can happen in a remote environment, I think a lot of people have moved to Colorado, and that will continue to spur technical advancement.”

 

Eric Peterson headshotDenver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer’s Colorado, Frommer’s Montana & Wyoming, Frommer’s Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver’s Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected]